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The Works of John Selden

Selden Attacks the System of Tithes

John Selden.The Historie of Tithes: That is, the Practice of Payment of Them, the Positive Laws Made for Them, the Opinions Touching the Right of Them. [London?: s.n.], 1618.

Tythes: “Abraham paid Tythes to Melchizedeck, what then?  twas very well done of him, it does not follow therefore that I must pay Tythes, no more then I am bound to imitate any other action of Abraham.” Table-Talk.

The publication of The Historie of Tithes in 1618 set off a political uproar. In this work, Selden Title page of Historie of Tithesdemonstrated how the laity's financial obligation to support the church had arisen out of custom over centuries, not by a law of nature or divine right. To a modern reader it is a seemingly innocuous subject -- tithes being money paid to the church, with origins in the ancient period. However, Selden’s conclusions bore disturbing implications for the contemporary English church, namely, a loss of funds. The clergy protested Selden’s work vigorously with the support of King James I, who viewed the publication as an indirect threat to his own claim of rule by divine right. After being summoned by the lords of the high commission and privy council, Selden was forced to apologize for having given offense—short of an outright disavowal of his work—and the book was withdrawn from circulation. If Selden’s friend Ben Jonson had not interceded on his behalf, he might have faced even more dire consequences. In spite of a dangerously close brush with the authorities, over the ensuing decade Selden became still more involved in England’s constitutional contests.